Many Americans would be lost today without their portable electronics. Whether with a smartphone, tablet or laptop, most of us like to be plugged in wherever we go.
Unfortunately, identity thieves try to exploit our love of all things technological by stealing the private information we keep in these devices.
More than 15 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, according to Rob Douglas, an identity theft and scam expert with IdentityTheft.Info, which tracks identity theft and suggests ways to prevent it.
We sometimes forget that these devices are really computers that can be hacked, just like our PCs at home. In fact, it’s sometimes easier to access these devices because we carry them around into places where thieves and intruders just have to sit and wait.
Once inside your device, an intruder can:
- Listen to calls.
- Read texts.
- Browse your contact lists to send out messages supposedly from you.
But you don’t have to be a passive victim. Following are six things that you can do to keep your electronics — and your information — safe.
1. Keep your electronics with you
Keep your eyes peeled, and you will see people leave devices unguarded all the time: Perhaps a man at the airport keeps his phone plugged in while making a quick run to the bathroom. Or, maybe a woman at the coffee shop places her phone on a table before walking over to stand in line.
Keep your electronic device with you at all times. A 2014 report on a study by the British government said that 67 percent of mobile-phone thefts occurred in a public place. The report warned that many of these thefts occurred “where the handset was left unattended in a public place, such as on a pub table.”
And what is going on across the pond likely is happening closer to home, as well.
2. Use a password
A few years ago, Symantec ran an experiment by leaving smartphones with tracking software at various places in different cities. The phones were loaded with fake information and a real phone number that could be used to return the phone.
The results from the experiment showed that:
- 72 percent of the people who found the phones looked through photos.
- 57 percent checked out saved passwords.
- 43 percent accessed the phone’s online banking app.
To fight this kind of information invasion, password-protect your phones and other devices. Don’t use a common phrase or obvious connection, like your child’s name. The more elaborate the password — such as incorporating numbers, symbols and nonsense words — the better.
Even if a hacker who steals your phone eventually breaks into your information, the password should slow down the process. That gives you more time to remotely wipe information from your phone once you realize it’s gone.
3. Enable a ‘wiping’ app
IPhones come with “Find My iPhone,” an app that can locate your Apple device and allow you to remotely erase all information on the phone from another iOS device. According to Apple:
Please note that Find My iPhone must be enabled in iCloud settings on your device before you can locate it with this app.
Thanks to Google, you can also locate a missing Android phone and remotely wipe it if it has been stolen. Business Insider has published a nice breakdown of how to do this step by step.
And if you ever decide to sell or trade in your phone, remember to wipe it and restore factory settings.
4. Don’t ‘jailbreak’ or ‘root’ your phone
The practice of “jailbreaking” or “rooting” a device allows you to download different apps on your phone and to make changes to the operating system. But doing so can be a fast track to identity theft and malware.
Instead, leave your device alone. Downloading an app after you have jailbroken your device is like licking the public faucet. Maybe nothing will happen — or maybe you will get sick.
And when downloading apps, stick to apps in the Android Market and on iTunes, which have been reviewed for general safety and bugs.
5. Turn off Bluetooth discovery
Practically every portable electronic device now has Bluetooth capabilities. If the Bluetooth is set in discovery mode, you might allow strangers to connect to your device without knowing it.
Once connected, they can make calls, install malware and download contact lists, to name a few of the options.
To protect yourself, shut off Bluetooth when you aren’t using it. Or at the very least, make sure electronics are in nondiscoverable mode or security mode. That way, nobody can join your device until you approve them.
6. Check your permissions
Does that recipe app you are downloading really need to know where you are? Probably not. Check such permissions when downloading a new app. Make sure they aren’t collecting information you don’t want them to have, such as all your contacts.
App descriptions often contain warnings that the app will ask for certain permissions when you download. If there aren’t any warnings or descriptions, check reviews from other people to see if there are any complaints about information gathering.
If the app won’t let you opt out of such intrusions, do not download it.
Do you have other tips for keeping your smartphone safe? Share them in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.